Friday, July 17, 2015

ignore Hanlon's More Optimistic Razor at your own peril

(Absolutely no good can come from throwing gasoline onto fires started by arsonists, but sometimes emotions override logic and you just want to watch some stuff burn...)

The problem with social justice warriors is the negligence of Hanlon's razor. Don't attribute to malice that which can be explained by ignorance.

Actually, Hanlon's razor isn't quite right. The problem with social justice warriors is that they frequently attribute to malice what can be explained by misguided good intentions, or non-misguided good intentions, or good but different intentions, or ignorance. Let's call it Hanlon's More Optimistic Razor.

This is highly counterproductive. My advice to them, which I truly hope they take since I usually share their goals, is to replace their vinegar with honey, and to do so not to strategically lure flies but because HMOR makes you honestly want to.

I'm not a particularly empathetic person myself, so I am constantly surprised at the extent to which people think their views are the only possible views with good intentions. Democrats think Republicans can only want tax cuts to reduce their personal tax bills or because they hate poor people. Republicans think Democrats can only want tax hikes because they are lazy or because they hate rich people. Christians think atheists can only be motivated by selfish immorality and atheists think evangelists can only be motivated by bigotry and hatred. The most rudimentary empirics you can imagine completely discredit all of these views, of course, but they persist.

These examples might be blatant enough that, when pushed, people will usually back off and admit that others' motives aren't quite as bad as they make them out to be. But the gut feeling and rhetoric persists. And there are plenty of other less salient examples where the acknowledgement of equally well-intentioned, but different, goals, definitely doesn't match reality. I study social norms, in particular differences in beliefs between individuals, and I cannot count how many times I've had examples responded to with "but... that's not really the same thing as different norms, because only one of them is a real belief, the other one is just concocted to justify preferences." No one can really think you should eat meat, or that you should allow guns to be legal, or that you shouldn't go to college, or that should beat women who reveal too much skin in public. But even in the most extreme examples, I firmly believe, not without evidence[1], that most people are inherently well-intentioned and simply have different goals and/or beliefs about how those goals can be attained. In fact, limiting ourselves to American/first world politics for the moment, I'd go even further and say it's really just the latter. People are mostly well-intentioned, and people mostly want the same things for the world, they just disagree about how to best achieve it.[2]

So why did I start this ramble by pointing fingers specifically at social justice warriors? Well, that's the fire I was referring to. Unlike other political battles, the war between the SJWs and the Scott Alexanders of the world seems to me to be almost exclusively fueled by the neglect of HMOR on the former side and the understandable defensiveness that the latter side responds with. If we could all just stop treating people we basically agree with who do things a little differently as evil, the entire war would end.

The specific motivating issue that leads me to write about this right now[3] is this whole pointless fight over the confederate flag that we're going through yet again. I am so bored by the confederate flag. And by politically correct vocabulary. And by correct pronouns and titles. And by innocuously-mistaken-yet-Bayesianly-reasonable-and-appropriately-corrected assumptions. There's a fair chance I'll be attacked or lectured for that paragraph, but I'm frankly too bored with the topic to respond, so apologies in advance.

The problem, for SJWs, with not being bored with the confederate flag is that it is counterproductive. Trying to make people feel bad for doing something they believe in will only make them more adamant about doing it. I have a model of social pressure that explains why. It's a double-whammy: If you attack me for flying the flag, then by keeping it up I get to signal that I am a person who does what I believe in even in the face of adversity. That's a pretty great reputation to have. And, you're making my friends pay more attention to the issue, leading them to pour even more approval on me. This is why I'm not remotely surprised that support for the confederate flag is increasing among Republicans as it falls overall.[4]

Obviously I'm against racism and a lot people who fly the confederate flag do so in part to express racism. But the act of flying the flag itself isn't harmful, so for the sake of the majority of the flyers who are well-intentioned and just want to express some southern pride[5] or have a nostalgic attachment to it or who want to make some statement about states rights, I just don't care. Even for the sake of the well-intentioned racists who have a different enough life experience that they honestly feel moral justification for their views... I'll vehemently try to convince them that they're wrong but it's a hell of a lot more effective to appeal to the inherently good person inside than to tell them that their views are so black-and-white plain-and-simple evil they shouldn't even be expressed.[6] In the meantime, that's all it is, an expression.

So please, for your sake, can't we all just get along?


[1] In fact, I was shocked that this apparently qualifies as a new surprising theory. Isn't it obvious!?

[2] And that's why people should put more bayesian weight on the opinions of economists, since this is what we spend our whole lives studying after all :)

[3] Other than my current sleep deprivation which makes me rambly instead of motivating me to focus harder on the work that has the imminent deadline that is the source of the sleep deprivation in the first place..

[4] I'm actually annoyed that I didn't blog this before seeing that link because I was going to predict exactly that. Oh well; I know I was right :)

[5] And by the way, the need that southerners feel to express their southernness, I can tell you for absolutely certain from my own experience, is strongly amplified by the constant dismissive derision from the rest of the country. Yet another perfect example of perilous neglect of HMOR...

[6] Yes I know that the debate isn't over the right of individuals to fly it, but the psychological impact of a debate over whether a state's citizens are allowed to choose to fly it on a government building is hardly any different.


jo said...

This is a very complicated topic to me and I've pondered it quite a bit (too much) (which isn't to say I have any great conclusions) but, some random thoughts:
-I'm not bothered by the causes "SJW"s pick or even their tactics, but rather the sense I sometimes get that they are in it more for the rush of self-righteous indignation and the ego boost of smug contempt rather than a real desire to change things and/or a real sense of pain/empathy. I get the allure of those feelings, but it's still kinda gross.
-On the one hand, of course people who are victims of discrimination have absolutely no moral or politeness obligation to carefully couch their complaints in a friendly way to avoid offending the very people who are discriminating against them. On the other hand, unexpected verbal shaming and name-calling makes a lot of people defensive. I suppose it depends what the goal is (venting/articulating feelings/changing hearts and minds) and who the intended audience is (discriminators/discriminatees/people in other societies). With the internet, so many things written for one purpose/audience end up being read the wrong way by a different audience. And random flawed individuals are incorrectly interpreted as voices of an entire organized movement.
-I extremely agree with you about how frustrating it is "the extent to which people think their views are the only possible views with good intentions". It's just intellectually lazy and unimaginative.
-I have an opinion on the confederate flag controversy but this is already too long for a blog comment.

purple prose said...

I love the USA. It's my #1 favorite country and my first choice for where to live. For me that means bravely confronting the good and the bad of my national heritage (even where it's not my particular familial heritage). In this country, we owned other people. We were owned by other people. It's reprehensible and tragic but it's who we are. Even after slavery was abolished, we continued to have brutal, violent, government-sanctioned discrimination, with the government sanction ending only 50 years ago. As a nation, we remain deeply affected by this heritage and we have a deep moral debt, perhaps not by historical or global standards, but certainly by our own standards. Taking down a flag seems like such an easy way to make a small step towards filling that debt. Why wouldn't we? I can't help but wonder if the people waving the confederate flag are really, fully, bravely facing the heritage they claim to love so much.